Album reviews: Barb Jungr, Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey, Sam Bailey, The Hold Steady, Seun Kuti + Egypt 80, Jimi Goodwin

 

Barb Jungr Hard Rain (Kristalyn)

Having established herself as one of the most imaginative of Dylan interpreters, Barb Jungr here extends her expertise to incorporate the Leonard Cohen catalogue, combining six songs from Dylan’s protest period with five of Cohen’s intriguing, compassionate reflections.

It’s a masterclass in the value of interpretive liberty, with songs transformed in almost revelatory manner. Cohen’s commemorative “Who By Fire” acquires a brooding menace  in alluring guise, becoming a death-song delivered as by a stealthy serpent. And the alliance of Clive Bell’s shakuhachi flute with Simon Wallace’s jazz piano arrangements opens up “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”: in the former, the yearning breath of woodwind subtly emphasises the wistful air of battered hope in Jungr’s inflections, while the latter becomes a coolly desolate declamation, rather than a vengeful diatribe.

Likewise, the undulating piano of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” helps lubricate her tone of determination tempered with despair, and the languid treatment of “First We Take Manhattan” replaces the military manner of Cohen’s original with a dreamer’s fantasy.

It’s not always successful: the jaunty delivery of “Everybody Knows” underplays its mordant irony, and the urgent flood of “It’s Alright Ma” doesn’t really lend itself to Jungr’s blithe intonation. Better by far is “Chimes of Freedom”, which offers an elegant expansion of the song’s blend of spartan tone and florid poetics.

The best of the Cohen interpretations utilise the compassion in Jungr’s voice, particularly “Land of Plenty” and “1000 Kisses Deep”, the latter’s mélange of desire and despair beautifully captured in the quiet, intimate treatment.  As with the album generally, it’s a subtle balance of hot and cold, a work of fiery cool.

****

Download: Blowin’ in the Wind; Who By Fire; First We Take Manhattan; 1000 Kisses Deep

Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey Going Back Home (Chess)

If Going Back Home turns out to be Wilko Johnson’s last album then it’s a great final curtain. Recorded with his Blockhead rhythm section of drummer Dylan Howe and bassist Norman Watt-Roy, choice selections from the guitarist’s back catalogue are augmented by a lone cover, of Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”. Save for the maudlin ballad “Turned 21”, it’s stuffed with brusque Wilko R&B cuts, with brilliantly condensed, biting fills chopped out in tracks like “Some Kind of Hero” and “Ice on the Motorway”, where the guitarist’s trademark slashing, staccato riffs evoke echoes of R&B pioneers Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Ike Turner. For his part, Daltrey matches Johnson every step of the way, fighting his corner just as fiercely as in his dayjob.

****

Download: Going Back Home; I Keep It to Myself; Some Kind Of Hero; Sneaking Suspicion

Sam Bailey The Power of Love (Syco)

Sam Bailey’s victory was the biggest foregone conclusion in the history of The X Factor, but even that predictability pales in comparison to her debut album, which simply presses the same button over and over again – the kind of overwrought belting that irons out any emotional wrinkles, but passes for great singing on TV talent shows. The material plays directly to this formula – the hit “Skyscraper”, covers of Jennifer Rush’s “The Power of Love”, Brenda Russell’s “Get Here”, and a duet with Michael Bolton on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that, compared  to the joyous original, sounds more like mutual torture. Supertramp’s “Lord Is It Mine”,  a favourite of Bailey’s late father, is the joker in this pack – but  even that is ploughed into an identical furrow.

**

Download: Skyscraper; Lord Is It Mine

The Hold Steady Teeth Dreams (Washington Square)

Reconstituted with a brawny two-guitar attack, The Hold Steady return with another portfolio of dirty-realist tableaux in Teeth Dreams. The characters peopling songs like “The Ambassador” and the drug-dazed “Oaks” are low on trust, heavy on foreboding. But there’s a doughty perseverance about them, whether it’s the girl “two years off some prairie town” diving into big-city nightlife in “Spinners”, or the struggling small-time drug-dealer “waking up with that American Sadness” in “On with the Business”. “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” is the album’s most complete and striking piece, its protagonist looking up old friends to find they’ve turned into survivalists with bulletproof vests and bunker mentalities: the dark underbelly of the American Dream, laid bare and raw-nerved. 

****

Download: I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You; On with the Business; Oaks

Seun Kuti + Egypt 80 A Long Way to the Beginning (Knitting Factory)

As with his older brother Femi, Seun Kuti’s work is effectively a direct extension of his father’s musical style and political beliefs – especially so in Seun’s case, given he now fronts Fela’s old band. A strong thread of anti-corporate, anti-corruption liberation ideology runs through A Long Way to the Beginning, with songs  such as “African Smoke” and “African Airways” offering metaphors for post-colonial control. Criticising the use of Chinese engines, Western pilots and World Bank radar, the latter characterises “Flight AA IOU” as directionless: “we no know where we dey go, so bad navigation no matter”. Throughout the album, the classic ebullient horn-riffing Afrobeat is augmented with prominent clipped rhythm guitar grooves, nowhere more powerfully than on “IMF”

***

Download: IMF; African Airways; Kalakuta Boy

Jimi Goodwin Odludek (Heavenly)

Doves frontman Jimi Goodwin makes the classic solo-album mistake with Odludek: buoyed by the realisation that he can do it all himself, he then goes and does it all himself, with no outsider input to rein in his indulgences. The result is an ambitious, varied, but largely unlovable work, its individual songs crammed with too many divergent ideas. Opener “Terracotta Warrior” is typical: a big, repeated fuzz-guitar monochord heralds a morass of guitar arpeggios, double drum tracks and orchestral arrangement – an absorbing production through which it’s hard to discern the lyrical thrust of Goodwin’s search for “the elemental force”. The best stuff here is the simplest, Goodwin’s hunt for passion and empathy in “Oh! Whiskey” built around acoustic guitar and harmonica, and the cycling arpeggios that bind together his tribute to “Didsbury Girl”. 

**

Download: Oh! Whiskey; Hope; Didsbury Girl

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